2014top10 – Madame by Antoni Libera

In the weeks running up to New Year I’m going to post reviews of the best ten books I read this year. They will be in no particular order until the final one which is my favourite of them all.

As it stands they include four YA books, three adult, one fantasy and a graphic novel (ish). 70% of them are written by women, two are debuts and all bar three have been newly published in the UK this year. One of them is a hardback I lugged around for a few weeks, one I read in an hour, another I read twice in three hours and one of them is the most challenging books I’ve read this year.

They’re my favourites because of what they say, how I came across them, who gave them to me, how I felt reading them, their writing and how I remember them.

Madame

A very great friend of mine started out as a film buddy (we met at London Film Festival) and has now become one of my favourite people to discuss film, art and books with. Often our conversations revolve around what we’ve read recently, what we want to read and if you catch us in a bookshop, you’ll never see two people enable each other more. So when I visited her in Rochester, I discovered a town littered with second hand bookshops, not unlike Hay in Herefordshire. Naturally we nosed around all of them picking out things to laugh at and consider. It wasn’t until the last one when my friend suddenly gasped and pulled a book off a shelf. It had a black and white picture of an elegant woman on the front and a one word title: Madame. An English translation of a Polish book, she immediately bought it and gifted it to me, giving me my first book by a Polish author, and one of the first European novels I’ve read. (Shocking I know, but I tend to stick to American and English titles. I don’t know why.)

At first I was a little scared of reading it. It’s one of her favourite books and what if I don’t like it? But then I started reading, and another world opened up to me. Set in 1960s Poland, it follows a 17 year old school boy as he becomes infatuated with his French teacher and tries to get her to see him as more than a pupil.

It’s a book that assumes the reader is intelligent. There are few explanations, numerous passages in French without translation and a sophisticated style of writing. I mean this in the best possible way; very little is spelled out and it makes understanding the protagonist much easier. The writing flows and the story is engrossing. Oddly, it was one of those books where the idea of reading it stalled me, but every time after a few sentences, I was pulled in. It took me AGES to read it. Three weeks for me is a bloody long time. I can usually get  through at least one book a week but Madame requires time and thought, and the writing is such that it needs savouring.

After finishing it, I couldn’t think what to say to my friend. I love Madame so much it couldn’t be conveyed in a text. Luckily, we met up soon after to hear David Mitchell (author, not comedian) talk and afterwards we spent a good while talking about Madame. The characters are all wonderful, the writing is wonderful, the final line is wonderful. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I’m so glad my friend gave it to me.

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